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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published December 30 2011

Devils Lake Basin road projects face delays over funding

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – A federal funding bill that limits highway appropriations to the chronically flooded Devils Lake Basin to $100 million annually could delay the completion of major highway construction projects or postpone other road projects.

“Ramsey County is kind of unique in that we have highway projects that could almost break that cap, and we have other projects that are in various stages of being done,” said Ramsey County Commission Chairman Bill Mertens. “We need money for those as well.”

Devils Lake officials made their appeals this month to Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., who toured the basin this week, and to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who visited in early December.

“We have about $180 million in projects going on right now, some of them in their final phases,” Mertens said. “Some of the emergency projects they’ve been doing in the basin are over $100 million each. If that goes through, we’re reduced to about 47 percent of our current needs.”

He listed several critical highway projects, such as raising N.D. Highways 20 and 57, both of which are nearing completion, and projects to raise U.S. 2, to keep the roads out of danger of flooding.

The problem arose when a House-Senate conference committee recently inserted language into the U.S. Department of Transportation bill, SR2112, which eliminates Devils Lake’s designation as a closed basin. It also limited federal highway spending in the basin to $100 million annually.

By most estimates, approximately $1.5 billion has been spent, most of it to raise roads and other critical infrastructure, since 1993 to protect the Devils Lake Basin from the nearly 19-year-old almost continuous flood. Devils Lake has risen by nearly 32 feet and quadrupled in size, reaching a record elevation this past summer of 1,454.4 feet above sea level.

The Federal Highway Administration this fall allocated some $31.5 million to flood-related road construction projects in North Dakota, including $10.71 million for the Devils Lake Basin.

The North Dakota Legislature also approved $6 million to the basin. Mertens said a meeting likely will be scheduled in January between the basin counties and the North Dakota Department of Transportation, to portion out that $6 million.

But the basin’s needs are much greater, local officials say. Ramsey County earlier this year identified four farm-to-market roads that will require an estimated $7.6 million to keep them usable.

“Roads are a key to our livelihood in North Dakota,” Johnson said. “We have to get our farm-to-market roads out of danger so farmers can bring their crops to town, so people can come to Devils Lake to shop, to fish, to take advantage of our recreational resource.”

Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald.